We Have A Pope Review

The BFI film festival presents ‘We Have a Pope’. It is award winning director Nanni Moretti’s attempt to fuse together comedy and drama in a film that takes the mick a little out of the Catholic Church and the pope selection process. The combination doesn’t work and the film feels incomplete. It has been uncomfortably pulled in two directions.

Melville (Michel Piccoli), the newly elected Pope, is having a crisis. Following a panic attack just as he is due to appear on St Peter’s balcony to greet the faithful, he flees from the scene and tells his cardinals that he just cannot bring himself to do it. They are patient with him and hire atheist psychotherapist (played by Moretti) for help. The psychotherapist must be confined to the walls of the Vatican as the Pope’s identity has been exposed to him; juxtaposing his confinement and the freedom the Pope feels as he flees from his role. He hides his identity and wanders the city of Rome, visits the theatre to see Chekhov plays, and talks to himself whilst riding around on the bus.

The premise is interesting and unique. It boldly mocks the Catholic Church’s concern with image. The Pope’s escape is kept secret from the public and even his cardinals, appearances are kept as a guard dresses in white robes and frequently wanders past the bedroom window, shifting the curtain back and forth. In therapy he lies that he is an actor, but isn’t up to the challenge anymore. His descriptions of what he used to love about acting are really about his religious duties. I don’t think Moretti intends to stress an atheist standpoint or simply criticize Catholicism. The Pope is a surreal way to explore what can happen when faced with such intense responsibility and a role that no longer fits you, religious or otherwise.

The film is tragi-comic, yet the comedy is confused and its presence erases any potentially tragic elements. The humour is intended to be surreal and absurd. There is an unnecessarily long scene where the cardinals play a competitive ball game, looking incongruous in their full robes. Moretti is so preoccupied with showing the cardinals as ordinary men dressing up in an image that it feels forced. They are shown playing cards and indulging in extra strong tranquilizers, or suggesting trips to get doughnuts. It isn’t weird enough to be funny, but too loud and obvious to work as dry or subtle. With the serious element trying to break through, any comedy attempted should have been on the low side. The film would have been more moving and poignant if it had simply been a drama. Melville could have been further developed. He is likeable, but not wholly convincing as his need for escape is never fully explored. We know that he can’t ‘do it anymore’ and he feels ‘better’ when he is roaming free, but not a great deal more before the abrupt ending. His turmoil with his faith isn’t explored enough. What is on the verge of an interesting study is interrupted for awkward and repetitive comedy. Does Melville actually believe in God anymore? A key question one would have thought.

An imaginative idea has been wrongly blended. Surrealism and realism together are an ill fit, and unfortunately the result in an unfulfilling watch and a sense that something was sacrificed.

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